Monday, November 20, 2006

here to stay: Rhymefest, The Sleepy Jackson, Phoenix

Yeah yeah, I've been gone for a while. I'm here to stay: the year-end crunch demands that I catch up as fast as possible. So here we go.

Rhymefest, Blue Collar - Conscious rap sucks, right? It's just a bunch of humorless, frequently heavy-set guys droning on and on about how hip-hop these days is about bling instead of "real shit," unlike whatever fantasy-land these guys came from where De La Soul rule the universe. Rhymefest is the antidote: instead of wasting time targeting substanceless stylists, he steals their producers and gets down to business. As the title implies, this is an album about work, and along with that unusual (for rap) topic Rhymefest throws in the dangers of unprotected sex, the War on Terror, etc., never forgetting his sense of humor or to throw a hook in. Actually he tries too hard sometimes - "Fever"'s hook is knicked from '50s striptease staple "Heatwave," and as if that isn't enough he has to announce he's "hot like hot sauce" - but, like the best rap songs (in my humble whiteboy opinion), these songs work as well as pop songs as close-listening fare.

Rhymefest doesn't have the vocal range of, say, T.I., but he can be sarcastic and fluid as needed, and the music carries the emotional range when his inflection alone can't. As far as moments (now weirdly common) where rappers feel compelled to sing: His joyously out-of-tune take on Nilsson's "One" in the middle of "Tell A Story" is outdone by album closer "Build Me Up," where the late O.D.B. revamps '60s chestnut "Build Me Up Buttercup" in indelible, drunk-outside-your-window-at-3-am fashion. Also guesting is Kanye West; rumors unclear on how much ghostwriting Rhymefest has done for Kanye besides his one acknowledged verse on "Jesus Walks" aren't helped by Kanye's inferior appearance on "Brand New," but his arrogance is continually hilarious and he knows it. And even if Rhymefest is writing all his verses, his persona is totally different; Kanye is obviously his final auteur.

So who is Rhymefest? Unabashedly horny but less confident in himself than the average mainstream rapper, he instead writes songs about failing to get laid. Suspicious of the police but equally opposed to drug dealers, his is a more pragmatic positivism, one which supposes less that black people should all become Henry Louis Gates Jr. or Colin Powell and instead should aspire to the just-getting-by mediocrity of their white compatriots: get an education, get a job, and don't forget to use condoms. What's cheering about Rhymefest - and what ultimately elevates him over T.I.'s album, since both their production is excellent and catchy as hell and happen to be two of the few rap albums I've heard this year - is the complexity of his worldview, the acknowledgment that you can be horny, conscientious, and a fuck-up all at the same time, and that this is OK.

All this talk of ethos aside, there's one purely musical moment on here that justifies the album all by itself. Producer Mark Ronson's track "Devil's Pie" begins midway through The Strokes' "Someday," as the chord change is about to lead to the main hook. "I ain't wastin' no more time," Julian Casablancas slurs; the sound is thin, and seemingly disastrous as a basis for a rap hook. Suddenly the guitars are slowed down, and "Someday" turns out not to be a tense A-major rock song, but a slowed-down G-major '70s funk track, as the guitars are chopped up into rhythmic breaks. You could get these kind of guitars from any obscure '70s sample, but if you know the original song, it's hard not to be impressed by its reinvention. It still makes me happy every time I listen.

The Sleepy Jackson, Personality - This album is so forgettable that I've listened to it 4 or 5 times and still have to play it while I'm writing this just to remember what the songs sound like. A shame: The Sleepy Jackson's 2003 debut Lovers was a great guilty pleasure, full of derivative, formulaic pop songs that worked perfectly. Luke Steele seemed then like the kind of craftsman idiot savant who could spit out 40 years of hooks in concentrated form, but he also had ADD. Lovers was in thrall to glam rock, alt-country, George Harrison, and even ridiculous but mercifully brief excursions into spoken word.

Personality suffers in part from being too disciplined; the songs and production feature none of Lovers' unexpected deviations. Instead, everything comes slathered in multi-tracked oohs and aahs, with plenty of horns and strings; lyrical content is heavy on pseudo-meaningful God vs. Devil stuff (no less than 4 song titles invoke this weak rock theology). After a glut of this album, it takes way too much discipline and effort to figure out what the song structures sound like individually; everything blurs into a weird mess of what sounds like, oddly enough, Christmas music for really chipper malls. (Maybe it's that choir and sleigh-bell intro on "God Lead Your Soul" that's throwing me off.) I'll throw a song off of this onto the best of '06 to see if it works better out of context if nothing better comes up ("You Won't Bring People Down In My Town," simply because it uses country fiddles as counterpoit rather than swathing Steele in strings that make the vocal line redundant); personally, though, this is the most disappointing sophomore slump of '06.

Phoenix, It's Never Been Like That - Totally aside from the fact that Sofia Coppola went from sleeping with Quentin Tarantino to the lead singer from this band (and dragged poor Francis Ford out to Coachella to see them in action), Phoenix is a legitimately intriguing group that's produced the most unintentionally opaque pop album of the year. They've been knocking around for a while, and I ignored them for their Air-derivative rep.

It's Never Been Like That doesn't ditch the electronics, exactly. It's a "rock" album like I've never heard, for a very geeky reason: guitar tone. Rock music is supposed to swagger and be loud; on opener "Napoleon Says," the snare hits are loud and majestic, but the guitars sound thin and reedy, in need of a few more layers at least. It's the fussiest possible approach to supposedly visceral music, but it works: I went from finding this downright dull to right0on, but it took 5 or 6 listens. Originality through engineering is a new one, but it works; Phoenix certainly don't get there through their sharp but derivative songs.

The other notable thing about Phoenix is that their lyrics actually reward paying attention. I initially thought "Rally" was an unlikely invitation to a NASCAR meeting: "Hook up with me/meet at the rally," it goes. But listen closer: the date is "April 22nd at the Avalon," aka some of 1972's more notable Vietnam protests, and a simple love song gains both political and nostalgic resonance. Sharp guys; it's worth having this grow on you.

TK (for real):
Camera Obscura, Let's Get Out Of This Country
M. Ward, Post-War
Herbert, Scale
Man Man, Six Demon Bag
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton, Knives Don't Have Your Back
Built To Spill, You In Reverse
Beirut, Gulag Orkestar
Beck, The Information
Girl Talk, Night Ripper
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
Portastatic, Be Still Please
Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye
The Concretes, In Colour
TV On The Radio, Return To Cookie Mountain
Joanna Newsom, Ys
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Letting Go
Darkel, Darkel


Blogger Adam Villani said...

My brother-in-law and I once saw a "conscious" rapper at a small club. His comment: "Intelligent rap is stupid."

7:04 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Dude, I've really been grooving on the Beirut album. Any chance for a few words on that?

3:00 AM  

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